Last month in the midst of a big hockey tournament and while the genuflecting Liberal opposition were vacationing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, showing supreme confidence and hubris, telephoned Governor General Michaëlle Jean to tell her he was proroguing Parliament, her formal "yes" a foregone conclusion given her response to his first kick at the prorogue can. The media yawned. Those who managed to put fingers to keyboard, opined it was no big deal, didn't matter. Canadians, on the other hand, disagreed. Boy, did they ever.
I was on Twitter at the time, and my feed filled quickly with WTF?-type tweets about the prorogue. Outrage grew as people wondered what the heck the media were doing. Were they even going to report it!?! And then a University of Alberta student -- resurrecting shades of old 1960s student protestors -- started an anti-prorogue Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. Actually, several people started anti-prorogues group. His took off. By the start of the first post-Christmas full work week, he had tens of thousands of people joining his group, and so the media started to pay attention. But they were a bit sniffy about it all. They put down most of the online chatter, just as Tony Clement famously did with his dismissive comment that only elites and chattering classes were yakking about such a non-issue.
"As the group began to take flight, it was surprising to see political leaders and analysts blithely dismiss the relevance of Facebook advocacy. Editorials pointed to other large groups to demonstrate the group's irrelevance, noting that joining a Facebook group was too easy – just click to join – to mean much of anything.The Facebook group continued to grow, and now the media's big, heavy boat has begun to turn, to follow Canadians way off in the distance ahead and write about this prorogue thing not being so good after all. Today Carol Goar, a member of The Toronto Star editorial board admitted that Parliament is broken, that Harper did abuse Parliamentary rules, but only if we Canadians think so.
This represents a shocking underestimation of the power of digital advocacy, which today is an integral part of virtually every political or business advocacy campaign." (Michael Geist, The Toronto Star, 18 January 2010)
"Cutting off democratic debate in these circumstances is not at all routine. It is a deliberate misuse of the rules of Parliament....This may all seem distant and theoretical to you. How does it affect your life if an irritating, dysfunctional debating forum is shuttered?" (Carol Goar, The Toronto Star, 18 January 2010)Clearly, she ain't talking to the chattering classes on Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, most Canadians receive their news via the media: television, radio, newspapers. And although the "chattering classes" on Twitter and Facebook are still chattering about it, albeit at lower volumes, they cannot influence the majority of their fellow Canadians who never go on those sites or read politically-minded blogs. So as much as it's super news that the Facebook group has 202,848 members at the time of this writing -- more by the time you read it -- it really won't create a pan-Canada movement unless those of us online can somehow nudge and push and startle awake the big media to talk to their viewers and listeners and readers often and long about why prorogue is bad, about how their fellow Canadians online are objecting, and about what they can do. The short attention span that many say is the bane of digital or online movements is really more about the media's short attention span. And, of course, we need to take our online chatter offline and talk to our friends and neighbours who eschew the Internet about this anti-prorogue movement. And now that we know the Federal Court has given Conservatives an OK to use backhanded tactics to fund their election campaign, joining their Liberal brethern in iffy backroom politics (remember the Sponsorship scandal?), it's even more important that we make our collective voice heard and make this only the beginning, the beginning of reforming democracy in Canada.
If the cross-Canada protests fizzle out as the Ontario college ones did, it won't be for lack of passion online or lack of trying by the organizers. There's been too many years of the media shrugging, of cynical "what can you do", of them and politicians infecting the populace with apathy, and vice versa I might add (here in Toronto, I blame former Mayor Art Eggleton for espousing the idea that doing nothing was good). Those of us online know that once you start writing about something that bugs you, you start to feel empowered, and once you feel empowered, you shed that apathy that has infected us for decades. Share that with your offline friends and neighbours, and the effect we'll have on democracy will continue to shock the know-it-all Clements and media opinion-makers of Canada.